If you ask anyone on the street what they want most in this world, the reply is typically pretty straightforward: we all just want to be happy. Well, some of us also want a thousand Labrador puppies but you catch my drift…
There are many chemicals that are responsible for our biological levels of happiness, however dopamine is one of the most significant contributors. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for our feelings of contentment, but also of accomplishment and motivation. In short, it can even turn a bitter, cynical, second year student like me into a temporary ray of sunshine. From a biological point of view, dopamine is our brain’s way of rewarding us for doing things that would keep us alive way back when we slept on wolf skins and ate mammoths: moving around, hunting, learning new things. Consequently, things we do nowadays that replicate those primitive actions are often the activities that will give you good boost of dopamine.
If your body has too little of dopamine, you’ll start feeling irritable, apathetic and tired. A severe lack of dopamine can result in depression, associated problems such as drug addictions, and can even be a cause of Parkinson’s disease. The beginning of a new term is an extremely busy and potentially stressful time, so it’s understandable if you’re feeling particularly low. But it is World Mental Health Day on October 10th, so what better time is there to start doing activities that will give us the dopamine boost we (almost certainly) need?
Ok, let’s get this out of the way first. I’m the first to admit that I used to be one of those people with a shiny pair of unused running shoes, sadly sitting in the back of my closet whilst I sprouted flimsy excuses when it came to P.E days at school. The result? I was (somewhat ironically) tired, grouchy and listless. The simple fact is that aerobic exercise is considered one of the best releasers of dopamine out there, particularly if you combine this physical activity with socialising. You don’t have to splash out on an expensive gym membership, or commit to running at six in the morning. Even the slightest movement has been shown to boost levels of dopamine. There’s a lot of information out there about different sports and activities that can cater to every individual – even if you have a disability, or are maybe not the fittest person in the world. You were given a body for a reason, go and find a way to use it!
2) Listen to uplifting music
This seems like a bit of a no-brainer, as most people know the effect good music can have on their mood. However, less obvious is the direct link between dopamine levels and what music you’re listening to. Recent research suggests that we don’t just get a release of dopamine when we hit a favourite part in a song we love, but also a few seconds beforehand leading up to that moment. Merely the anticipation of good music can cause a noticeable rise in our spirits. If you are interested in the correlation between dopamine and music, I’d highly recommend reading an article called “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing” from the New York Times.
3) Celebrate small achievements
By making checklists and rewarding yourself for achieving even the smallest of tasks, you can give yourself a dopamine boost. This is where something like a bullet journal will really come into its own – I’ve recently started using one and not only does it help me remember things that would otherwise slip through the cracks of my mind, but it also gives me a sense of pride when I check something off my list – even if it was something as simple as “take recycling out”. By celebrating what you have done as opposed to lamenting what you haven’t done, you can feel like your day was fulfilled and, in turn, hopefully feel happier and more motivated.
4) Get in the zone
Ever had that feeling when you’re doing something and suddenly you find yourself with ten missed calls five hours later because you simply lost track of time? This has been termed being ‘in the zone’ and can happen when you’re doing almost anything that you enjoy – hobbies, sports, crafts, work. It’s long been known that the more time you spend ‘in the zone’, the happier you will be generally. As long as it’s something that is slightly challenging or engaging it can help contribute towards higher levels of dopamine. Setting aside even just a small amount of time each day to immerse yourself in activities you enjoy and find stimulating can work wonders in the long run.
5) Seek new things
Our ancestors would probably have spent the majority of their day hunting or gathering food needed to survive, but due to the creation of supermarkets and online delivery we now live in a world of immediacy. We no longer have to go and seek things we need. Yet recent studies have shown that hobbies related to collecting and finding things have been shown to be useful in maintaining high levels of dopamine in the brain. By searching for old vinyl records in antique shops, or going out and physically tracking down the books you need instead of just ordering them online, you are replicating the activities performed by our primitive ancestors. That being said, you don’t just need to look for physical objects. Our brain rewards us for seeking new things and discovering new information. Pick a topic you’ve never learned anything about before: outer space, palmistry, the feeding habits of the goblin shark. Go and fall into an internet black hole of weirdness and new information. Your dopamine receptors will thank you for it!
Links and further information:
“Happy” – a 2011 documentary written by Roko Belic (available on Netflix)
“The Little Book of Mindfulness” by Tiddy Rowan
“Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine” by Derren Brown